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What the former St. Anthony police chief had to say about police reform, racial profiling and BLM before he retired in May

Two months ago, I interviewed John Ohl, the retiring police chief of St. Anthony, the head of the department now under scrutiny for its role in the death of Philando Castile. 

Editor’s note: A version of this story, by MinnPost Cityscape columnist Bill Lindeke, originally appeared on Lindeke’s personal blog on Thursday, July 7, the day after St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. It has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity and formatting purposes.

Two months ago, on May 15, while working on a story for a community newspaper, I interviewed John Ohl, the police chief of St. Anthony, who was about to retire after 30 years of working at the St. Anthony Police Department.

Entering into the interview, I hadn’t intended to discuss police reform debates, racial profiling, or #blacklivesmatter, and I was surprised when Chief Ohl brought it up. During our interview Ohl shared his frank opinions about these issues, and seemed eager to defend the St. Anthony Police Department’s record on issues like community policing, video evidence, and the use of force.

Here is a transcript of our conversation:

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Bill Lindeke: How many cops do you have here anyway?

Recently retired Chief John Ohl: Twenty-three. We have 23 sworn, 14 reserve officers, a [Community Service Officer] full-time and three support staff.

BL: What are you planning on doing after [you retire]? How many days do you have left? Is it a clock thing, you get your pension and then you’re done? 

JO: Well it’s partially that. It’s partially timing with the police department right now; it’s set up well to take the next transition. We’ve done a good job with succession planning. And it feels right. I’m not angry, I’m not burned up. I’m not bitter. I don’t have any union people taking votes of no confidence on me. I have great relationships with all three councils. I feel good.

This job is tough on people. It’s tough on the Patrol Officer and tough on the upper administration. Everything’s my fault, and I’m on call 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week. I have been for 25 years.

BL: Well you’re responsible for a lot of people’s well-being and livelihoods.

JO: When I’m in Mexico… When you’re in Mexico vacationing, you’re thinking about your next margarita. I’m in Mexico thinking, “God I hope somebody doesn’t get hurt here, a cop doesn’t get shot, doesn’t kill somebody.” Because I’d have to leave. I’d have to leave Mexico.

And that’s the way my life has been run for… Well, I was a street cop for six years. I went into investigations. And then I was promoted to lieutenant, and then captain, and then chief.

BL: What does investigations mean?

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JO: I was a detective. When I got put into investigations, as a detective, after six years on the street, I became a 24-hour, 365-call. I started my 24-hours-a-day, no matter where I was, no matter what I was doing.

And that’s been 25 years. And that’s long enough. Thirty-three years, and my family doesn’t deserve it any more. I’m not angry and not bitter. I’ve had a great career and I’m very, very fortunate, but I’m tired of the constant on-call, the constant vigilance. 

BL: Understandable.

Former St. Anthony Chief of Police John Ohl
Former St. Anthony Chief of Police John Ohl

JO: And all my friends own small businesses. All the high school guys run small businesses, and there’s a lot of opportunity to help them out. I’m interested in doing some volunteer work, where I’m just in charge. If I do a good job it’s because I did a good job. Not because someone works for me, but because of something I did. So I’m interested in that too.

BL: But nothing specific?

JO: No. No. Not right now. I’m kind of in the infancy of this whole thing.   

[Here our conversation went briefly off the record. It resumes below.]

BL: Well, it’s hard to recruit cops, too.

JO:  Now it is. It used to be that it was a profession that people saw as highly sought after. And thanks to some extremely negative and biased news media reporting — not to throw you under the bus — but, the news media wants to report the minutiae, and society will pay the price.

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BL: There’s always been a tendency to report on crime and make it seem out of control…

JO: Yup. But here’s the problem with that. On years when crime went down … Of course, “If it bleeds, it leads”… that whole thing. So when you report on crime, and people’s idea in their heads is that that crime is out of control, even in years where we can show that crime is down significantly, people when they’re polled, they think that crime is up.

BL: Yeah, like the dropping murder rates in US cities across the country, well except Chicago, for some reason. If you look at the difference between media reporting on murders and actual numbers of murders, you think, “Why is that happening?”

JO: Exactly. The point is that because the news media has a platform. And it puts it in your face. You have a bias, and your bias is that you think murder is out of control, even on years that it goes down significantly.

So now what has the news media done? So what’s the end result of me thinking that crime is out of control? What’s the societal cost of that? Now you’ve taken hyper-vigilance and white-hot light and shined it on guys that are trying to do their job as best they can, and plucked out the minutiae. And focused on it, like they could for news reporters, or lawyers, or politicians, or anybody else. They chose to dig deep and find the worst possible scenario, and shine it like a light, and report on it every day.

So what do you think people’s bias is now? Cops are gun crazy shooting nut-bags that need to be reeled in. It’s not the case. Not even close to the case. Yet… 

What’s the societal price we’re going to pay? I’m already hearing that schools that are teaching law enforcement are having declining enrollment rates. Bright young people who should be cops, who we want as a society to be cops, are choosing different professions. Why wouldn’t they?

Why would you be a cop today? You’re treated like a piece of crap. And I’m not saying by society in general. Our city loves us, our Council supports us, and we are greatly appreciative of that citizen and council support. But geez! National news media and local media are making it tough on us. And it’s tough to recruit new cops, good high quality cops! And you’re seeing declining rates right now, but societal costs are coming, Bill. It’s coming, when bright young people no longer choose this career because of biased, unfair, and undeserved reporting…

BL: That’s kind of why we’re doing this story. Because it’s not about anything negative recently. 

JO: And that’s great. I think if I’m going to leave a legacy, I take every opportunity with every person, especially people in your position, to try to get you to see… What a great deal to write a story on biased reporting and law enforcement.

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You want to hear some statistics? We arrest about 12 million people every year. In the United States of America we arrested about 12 million people every year. A half of… 500,000 of those … the FBI has got the stats very easily. About 500,000 arrests are for violent criminal offense. We use deadly force in effecting arrests about 400 times a year. We kill about 400 people a year in effecting arrests. In the same time period, 100 to 200 cops are killed, and 100,000 are assaulted.

What’s the story line? Do the math: 400 into 12 million. We use deadly force about .00028 percent of the time. But that’s the story? What do people believe presently today? It’s just an amazing… The news media is an amazing tool…

BL: So why do think it’s gotten so intense lately?

JO: Because news media makes money on the pain of others. That’s what happens. “If it bleeds, it leads”… There’s a reason for that. Because people want to see that. So the news media shows it. And what sells better than a bad cop?

BL: It’s a different story for a different paper and I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s about challenges in St. Paul and Minneapolis police departments in recruiting diverse candidates. [Note: the article was published last week.] So that’s one of the things people complain about a lot. I was trying to think about how can I write a story about police and trying to reform police departments without focusing on a lot of what you’re talking about. I want to see what are solutions we can come up with.

JO: You mean for diversifying law enforcement?

BL: Yeah.

JO: Well we’re talking about one right now. So if you think it’s distasteful for your white suburban high school kid to choose law enforcement as a career, based on what we’re doing to them in the news media today, what does it do to your urban city minority? They are twice as affected by it.

BL: The two officers I spoke with — one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul — were really frustrated, I could tell, about what’s happened in the last year or two. 

JO: Bill, I … I don’t know. You can tell I’m getting a little animated about it.

BL: I appreciate your honesty.

JO: It’s just so unfair, and we have no platform. We have no platform to tell the truth.

Hey, let me tell you the truth about these statistics? What do we hear about cops on any single day? What we hear about cops every single day… You want to shine the white hot light on anybody? Contractors… mechanics… Priests…

BL: Journalists.

JO: Journalists! Anybody you want to put on the list. But it’s not this whole, this “21st century policing” from the President, and all the executive research forums. When that came out…

BL: Can you tell me what “21st century policing” is…

JO: Yeah, President Obama. Just google “President Obama’s 21st century policing,” Here’s what we should be doing in law enforcement to solve the problems that we think we have. And I go down that list and well, 90 percent of what’s on that list, we’re already doing.

I just read it and go, yeah, doing, doing… You mean some people don’t do that? Doing, doing, doing.

Because nothing’s significantly broken in law enforcement now. We are better trained, better selected, better educated, held to more standards, higher accountable, and with better policies than ever before in the United States of America’s history. Yet we’re in the toilet right now. Why? 

Why are we in the toilet? There’s only one reason.

And it just drives me crazy, and it’s unfair. And like I said, it’s too bad, because you’re going to pay the price, I’m going to pay the price.

BL: As a society, you mean.

JO: Society is going to pay the price. Because there’ll be people to fill those positions, but “Are they going to be who you want?” is the good question.

BL: Well that’s probably not the angle my editor was looking for. But I will try to mention some of this stuff because it’s important to you and it’s interesting to me. And like you said, it’s crucial to get other narratives out there besides “everything’s down the toilet and the cops hate the community and vice versa,” because that’s not always the case.

JO: Never has been the case. It’s not; this system is not broken. It’s not perfect, but it’s not broken.

BL: Well, what would you do to fix anything? The media is one thing, right… 

JO: What would I do? We take care of our house. All I would say is, “What would I do?” Look at what we’ve done. You can read about it in our annual reports.

[Ohl takes down a binder from the shelf behind him of annual reports and reads from it.]

“A clear mission improves the quality of our service. Most would agree that the way law enforcement conducts business has never been under more scrutiny. This despite the fact that we have become more technologically sound, are more restrained in the use of force, are more integrated, are more carefully trained, and are more selectively chosen than ever before.”

Now that’s not my opinion. You and I cannot argue about that. That is a fact. That is an absolute fact.

So what more do you want me to do? We are moving forward constantly. What more is it that I’m supposed to do?

I said that, “The perception that police officers are out of control is not supported with the good work that’s done every day. People who have never seen cops’ everyday reality can easily overlook how difficult it can be to act humanely, as cops must, even with the dregs of our society, the schemers, the violent people, and those who prey on the weak.”

BL: That’s actually pretty well written, John.

JO: Well, you’re welcome to [get] it off the website. It just continues.

In our business, perception is reality. And the most effective weapon we have is cooperation. So how do I… my Council knows what kind of cop I am, what kind of cop shop I run.

So how do we get Channel 11 news to write good stories? To write about the fact that we are more selectively employing? Nobody cares. They don’t care. 

They say to themselves, “Can I make money by reporting the good things that are happening in the city of St. Anthony or around our metropolitan area? Or can I make more money by finding that one cop and putting it on the news for seven days in a row? Which one makes me more money?”

The muckrakers of the ’20s are gone. They provided a service to the population. Your peers, your counterparts in that day and age helped shape America to being a better place. What we’re doing now in the news media is making money. And that’s it.

We don’t report the news with a non-biased slant. If they did, we would say: “Oh, so there’s a cop that shot an unarmed guy in the back, and it’s on video. And holy shit, that’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.”

We can report on that, and we’re gonna report on that, and we should report on that. But when we report on that, let’s balance that. Is that happening all across America? And to what degree?

Oh, let’s do the quick math, and we just did: .0028 percent of the time. Do we want to report on that? Will that make us money?

And now you’re asking me what am I going to do? We’re more selectively trained, we’re better educated…

BL: Well what do you think about, for example, there’s a debate at the legislature right now about the body camera thing.

CJO: Full of issues. Full of problems, I’m sure you’ve read all about them. There are pros and cons behind everything. I can show you a videotape that clearly shows in one view of a guy a police officer executing a guy.

BL: And you look at another angle…

JO: One other angle and you see a gun in his hand. In the bad guy’s hand. That the cop didn’t shoot him, he must not have seen the gun. You see two cops go up to a crazy guy and from the one video camera, the guy, you see the cop get out of the car and start to engage with this guy. And I’m thinking, he can’t see the gun in his hand. And his partner comes out of the car and shoots him four times in the back.

And you just go, “Oh. Oh my god.” From one view, his partner just executed him. From another view, he just probably saved his partners’ life. And, by the way, a bunch of bystanders that were standing by this store.

So video isn’t going to be a solve all, do all. We think it is because we’re having this knee-jerk reaction. I haven’t had a sustained I.A. [internal affairs investigation] in five years because of video cameras in squad cars. In five years, because of what I think is very likely video cameras in squad cars, that’s where 90 percent of it happens.

BL: So that was a good change, then?

JO: It was. It’s the public view. Cops resisted it at first. It’s not perfect, because like I just told you it definitely is not forward but it was a step in the right direction  for some clarity. But if we’re doing the body cam thing, so that this tape is going to be the only thing that’s, you know, discussed, I think people have too high of an expectation, just a little too high of an expectation for what that’s gonna solve.

And let’s not forget. Is it solving a systemic problem in law enforcement in our society today? I don’t think that there is a systemic problem around law enforcement in our society today.

I think the statistics, anybody who wants to be rational, not emotional, You don’t need to take my word for it, go do the math. See the good that’s going around. Walk around to Joe Blow Citizen, and ask him if the cops are doing a shitty job? And that they’re gun happy…

BL: In Saint Paul, I think people that I talk to, most people are pretty happy with the police force there. And I know the politicians are… the chief’s retiring over there too, I don’t know if you know him. It’s really context dependent, and it depends on the person.

JO: It does. If you just got a speeding ticket, you maybe think the cops …

BL: So it just depends. Hopefully it makes a difference, the personal relationships that you’re building. 

JO: It does. And it’s happening all across this country, what I’m talking about. This isn’t specific to St. Anthony. It’s happening all across the country. And it has been happening, nothing changed. We’ve been working that direction for twenty years. Twenty years, we’ve been working that community oriented policing direction.

BL: How many days do you have left? From what you’ve been saying it’s not like you’re going to sit around knitting…

JO: Well, everything that you and I have been talking about I would be held accountable for in the public forum. I’ve said it a million times that what we have here isn’t broken. That what we have here is a lack of a platform. So none of this is something I, because I think you’re a nice guy and you seem to care about writing and your work… 

BL: I don’t write about police stuff very much. And I’m glad I don’t. I do mostly urban policy things like transportation and development and so… There are contentious issues there too, but it’s not so much life and death as you guys have to deal with.

JO: From thirty-three years now, I’ve been reflecting on things, and this is the topic of the day.

BL: Yeah, it sure is.

JO: This is the topic of the day. And so I’m animated about it, because this is the end of my career. And I’ve seen a turn that is simply sad to me. And its sad because it’s not being balanced. At so at the end of my career, that is disappointing. Very disappointing.